Nearly 1.9 million Pennsylvanians financially qualify for legal aid, but one in two qualifying individuals who seek assistance from legal aid programs are turned away because of lack of resources. It is estimated that at least 80% of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. The Law Center is taking a leadership role in addressing this crisis as co-Chair of the newly-formed Civil Legal Justice Coalition.
‘Civil Gideon’ refers to the movement that, for the past several years, has been working to provide increased access to civil legal services for low-income persons in legal proceedings that affect basic human needs, such as housing, healthcare, and child custody. In the 1963 landmark United States Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decided that indigent defendants facing criminal proceedings have a constitutional right to an attorney, free of charge. The Civil Gideon movement seeks to expand this principle to civil proceedings, as a matter of right and at the public expense, by demonstrating the ways in which justice is not being done when those most in need must advocate for themselves.
Who We Are
The Civil Legal Justice Coalition, formed in early 2013 out of the Philadelphia Bar’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force, is a coalition of leaders and key stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth who have come together to explore and implement strategies that will generate broader awareness of the unmet need for legal services in fundamental areas, such as adversarial proceedings involving housing and child custody matters, as well as the multiple economic and societal benefits to be obtained through funding for such services.
The Coalition is extremely fortunate for the leadership provided by Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court , who is serving as Honorary Chair of the Coalition, and by Senator Greenleaf, who is chairing three statewide Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Over the past two years, three public Senate Judiciary hearings have been held on this topic (see below video). We also released a report in May 2014, concluding that the staggering number of unrepresented low-income litigants in civil legal matters adversely impacts the quality of justice for all parties in Pennsylvania courts, negatively impacts the courts’ administration of justice and undermines the rule of law.
In working to increase systemic funding and support for civil legal services in Pennsylvania, the Coalition has taken a page out of the playbook of New York’s Task Force to Expand Access to Legal Services.
Civil Legal Justice in the News
A Need for Civil Legal Aid – New York Times, April 10, 2015
Pro bono work truly changes lives–here’s how – Penn Live, March 24, 2015
New law gives legal aid for the poor a boost – WITF, July 17, 2014
Too many Pennsylvanians face their legal troubles alone – Philly.com, June 24, 2014
Chief Justice Castille Urges Attorneys to Get Involved – Chief Justice Castille joined with Pennsylvania Bar Association President Forest N. Myers in making a formal plea to Pennsylvania’s approximately 70,000 registered lawyers. They called on these attorneys to make a personal commitment to provide pro bono service through direct representation to the poor and financial support of the state’s legal aid programs.
Inquirer Editorial: Toward Justice for All Regardless of Wealth – Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 2013
Legal Aid Access for Low-Income Draws Attention – Times-Tribune, May 28, 2013
Legal Plight of the Poor is Focus of PA Senate Hearing – Philadelphia Inquirer, May 24, 2013
Castille Testifies in Favor of ‘Civil Gideon’ Funding – Legal Intelligencer, May 24, 2013
Hope for Those Going It Alone in Court? Sen. Greenleaf Looks at Need for Designated Legal-Aid Funding – Citypaper, May 23, 2013
Judges, Lawyers Say Poor Still Lack Sorely Needed Legal Aid – Newsworks, May 23, 2013
Coalition of Lawyers Pledge to Serve Low-Income Families – CBS Philly, May 23, 2013
A Poor Excuse for Justice – Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 2013
Advocates Argue for Civil Representation – Philadelphia Tribune, May 20, 2013
PA Sen. Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on ‘Civil Justice Gap’ – Pennsylvania Record, May 8, 2013
Copies of the remarks of Chief Justice Ronald Castille, written testimony, transcripts and videos of the hearings are also available at:
Statewide Coalition Report Details Growing Crisis in Meeting Critical Legal Needs of Low-Income Pennsylvanians
HARRISBURG (May 6, 2014) – A report released today by the Pennsylvania Civil Legal Justice Coalition concludes that the staggering number of unrepresented low-income litigants in civil legal matters adversely impacts the quality of justice for all parties in Pennsylvania courts, negatively impacts the courts’ administration of justice and undermines the rule of law.
The report, which was released at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recommends the creation of a first-ever Access to Justice Commission to serve as a vehicle for studying and implementing measures to expand access to justice in the state.
In Toward Equal Justice for All: Report of the Civil Legal Justice Coalition, the 30-member coalition documents evidence presented at three statewide hearings held in 2013 by the Senate Judiciary Committee to explore the state of access to justice in Pennsylvania.
The report shows that access to civil legal services in basic human needs cases provides significant economic and social benefits for litigants and their communities. It also showed that the unmet need for civil legal assistance is profoundly impacting vulnerable Pennsylvanians and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence and increasing poverty. It cites one recent study that found that for every dollar spent on legal aid in Pennsylvania, there is an $11 return to the state and its residents.
“Equal access to legal representation is one of the most critical justice issues we face today,” said Senator Stewart Greenleaf. “I am pleased to see the legal community come together to offer their insights and recommendations to the Judiciary Committee.”
Demand has surged for civil legal representation on behalf of the poor, whose ranks have swelled following one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history. Those needs have been largely unmet due to a “perfect storm” of sustained and severe cuts in federal and state funding and a tight private fund-raising environment that has resulted in layoffs of legal aid staff and office closings. The gulf between client need and availability of legal help has been termed “the civil justice gap.” State and national studies estimate that 80 percent of critical legal needs of low-income people go unmet due to insufficient funding and support.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, people with serious legal problems shared their personal stories of struggle:
• A veteran, after a lifetime of employment, became unable to work after collapsing from a heart condition. Without income he fell behind on his mortgage payments and was served by the sheriff with foreclosure papers on the small trailer he called home. He did not have the information or skills needed to obtain disability benefits that could have helped with the mortgage payments or to stop the foreclosure.
• A woman, subject to vicious abuse at home, appeared in court on her own, trying to obtain a protection from abuse order against her child’s father. She did not know to bring witnesses or that she could subpoena people to testify about the abuse, and her plea was rejected.
In each case, it was only after assistance from lawyers that these individuals were able to achieve positive outcomes for themselves and their families.
To address the growing crisis and gap between client need and the availability of legal help, the coalition’s report recommends that:
• Pennsylvania Supreme Court establish an Access to Justice Commission to serve as a vehicle for studying and implementing measures to expand access to justice, including proposing and promoting strategies to adequately increase levels of public, private and volunteer resources and funding for civil legal aid providers in Pennsylvania. Thirty-two states currently have such commissions.
• Pennsylvania’s legislature annually appropriates an additional $50 million for civil legal services to adequately address the immediate crisis in access to justice.
• Pennsylvania work toward establishing a right to counsel in civil legal matters in which fundamental human needs are at stake.
The Pennsylvania Civil Legal Justice Coalition is a statewide coalition of leaders from the Philadelphia, Allegheny County, Dauphin County and Pennsylvania Bar Associations; representatives of the public interest community; and other key stakeholders who work to explore and implement strategies to improve access to justice for low-income Pennsylvanians. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille is the coalition’s honorary chair.
A copy of the coalition’s report, video and audio recordings, complete witness lists and copies of the testimony presented at the statewide hearings are available at the Civil Gideon Corner page of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s website at www.philadelphiabar.org/page/CivilGideon.